Bill Congreve (ed.)

Five Island Press Associates (1992)

ISBN: 1-875604-03-0

Reviewed by Phillip Berrie (this review was first published in October 2007)

I found this book at a trash ‘n’ treasure stand and promptly paid the princely sum of 50 cents for it after seeing the list of contributors. These authors and the fact that it was an anthology edited by Bill Congreve lead me to expect some very interesting stories. What I didn’t appreciate at the time was the publication date. Printed in 1992, this thin (11 stories, 144 pages) soft cover book is well and truly out of print, though I have seen it listed in some second-hand book shops online. Still, the editor of this fine website has allowed me to indulge myself with a retrospective review of this piece of Australian Horror history.

The opening story, “Dem Bones” is by Robert Hood. I suspect he got to go first because it was his publishing company, Five Islands Press, that published the anthology. This is a revenant story, where some local, and very Australian (presumably a refreshing element of the story at the time), villains get their comeuppance for killing and disturbing the grave of a derelict named Bob Skelton, who had the prophetic nick name, Bag O’ Bones. Nothing very original here, I’m afraid, though remember we are talking 1992.

“A Sprig of Aconite”, by Sue Isle, is a story about a werewolf homicide. Bonus points for those who recognised the clue in the title, though its use, and this story, might not be as you expect. The piece involves two regular characters of the author – a pair of psychic detectives – as they investigate the death of an associate. Interesting characters, but including them and having them solve the mystery of the deaths detracted from what little horror was to be found here for this reader. This piece is a fantasy/crime cross genre story and, in my opinion, would have found a much better home as part of a larger story about these characters.

The next story “They Found The Angry Moon” is by Terry Dowling. It is another ‘just rewards’ story, where a pair of villains get what’s coming to them because they mess with the occult. Dowling’s prose in this story is very dense and this is the only piece in the anthology where I saw typos that slipped passed the editorial eye. I will leave thinking about that as an exercise for the reader and just mention that this story ends with a lovely little take on the ‘just rewards’ idea.

Rosaleen Love wrote the next story, which is entitled “Holiness”. Set in a remote part of China, the main character – a priest, who is also a paleontologist – has come looking for evidence of Peking Man. Strange occurrences, which are interpreted as slippages in time, have him thinking about the nature of time itself and he comes to a ‘timely’ end when he lets his scientific zeal get the better of him. To my mind, it is evident that Love is not a horror writer, she is too much the scientist, and for me there is too much philosophy about the nature of time in her story. And it is not the dark philosophy of time spoken of by Lovecraft (e.g. “That is not dead which can eternal lie and with strange eons even death may die”, from The Nameless City) – I hesitate to say it, but I can’t resist … she lacks his ‘craft’-  instead her philosophy shows more of the abstract and uncaring nature of space-time which is the purview of the scientist. And whereas her story is sometimes thought provoking, it is hardly horrific.

Geoffrey Maloney’s “Meat Puppets” is a truly chilling story (pun intended) about the sins and horrors that can be hidden behind the facade of day-to-day life and the local butcher. He leads us from temptations of the flesh to adultery and then to retribution and greed in a thoroughly modern manner of which Shylock would have been proud.

The next story, “Porphyric Plague”, is another that I would not truly call horror except in the realisation that through the chain of logic and events that Sean McMullen weaves it can be seen that one of the evilest of supernatural creatures could actually exist. However, the author then recants his sins and, in my opinion, lessens the horror aspect of the story by relating how the main protagonist is engineering his own cure through the intervention of modern biology.

The original Sirens lured sailors to their deaths by shipwreck with alluring promises of sex. A. G. Clarke’s story, “Sirensong”, brings this legend into the current day and, in an interesting twist, entangles it with the concept of road rage. An interesting premise, but in my opinion, the author doesn’t bring it off.

Steven Proposch’s “Maggie’s Place” seems to be a small piece of something much larger; the title and Maggie are not really relevant to the story. The horror aspect of the piece is dependent on a common phobia, one that this reviewer is not afflicted by, so was left unaffected and slightly frustrated, wondering what all the rest of the back story was for and whether it was actually ever published.

The editor’s own story, “Dream”, is a better representative of the horror genre, in my opinion. It appealed to and affected me on several levels. Congreve writes with authority about an author straying beyond the realms of fiction into the real world of the serial killer through the agency of an old typewriter with an incredible power. For me, the horror in this story comes from the descent into madness of the main character as his prose becomes reality. That, and the helplessness of the people afflicted by the muse of the main character when they are forced to do things that are abhorrent to them. This helplessness is nicely reinforced by the anticlimactic ending of the story where reality reasserts itself and the guy doesn’t get the girl.

To my mind the penultimate story, “Bit Parts”, by Peter Corris, should not have been included in this anthology. The subject matter has already been explored far better in Geoff Maloney’s, “Meat Puppets” and this attempt lacks even the connection to carnal temptation and retribution that the previous story had, instead replacing it with an uninteresting character, commerce and disinterested criminals.

The anthology finishes with Sean Williams’ piece called “Going Nowhere”, set on the highway that crosses the Nullabor. An apt name in that there are so many elements to this story that do just that. However, I suspect given the title that this was the goal of the author. At the end of the piece, the reader is brought full circle back to a similar situation to the one that started the story without really having had any of the questions the story raises answered. I was even left wondering about the genre of this piece: ghost story, aliens, time travel; all were hinted at. For this review, the important question to ask though is, was it horror? Is fear of the unknown enough?

This slim volume seemed to hold so much promise when I first picked it up; all those well known authors. A look through the Locus bibliographical indices or the author’s respective websites will show you the reasons why most of these authors are currently household names in the Australian speculative fiction scene. However, looking at the anthology as a whole, I was unimpressed.

Apart from a few notable exceptions – Dowling’s twisted just reward, Maloney’s pound of flesh and Congreve’s serial vicariousness – there was little horror here. Certainly there was cleverness: McMullen’s scientific inventiveness, Clarke’s repackaging of an old myth and William’s circularity, all show the author’s story crafting abilities, but you will note that the two more famous of these authors are not writing horror these days.

Is this the reason why this anthology is not as chilling as later Australian horror anthologies? Technically, it was the first, preceding Terror Australis (Coronet, 1993) by a year. To me it has the feel of a group of Australian authors looking for a venue rather than a true theme and genre-based anthology.

So, in the end, we can but look at this anthology as a first attempt. And in that light I can, with 20/20 hindsight, say that it shows lots of potential. After all everyone has to start somewhere, as I am with this review, so let’s end up giving everyone the benefit of the doubt.